Consider the connection to equity when asking or requiring students to have their cameras on
Sustainably and systemically focusing on equity (everyone gets what they need), diversity (the combination of people of different backgrounds), inclusion (everyone is invited in and feels they belong), and justice (breaking down the barriers between groups) is a challenge for most schools. The addition of COVID-19 magnifies this difficulty causing many teachers and school administrators uncertainty as to how to meet educational and equity needs at the same time.
I believe students need to be seen and heard in their classrooms, and schools are tasked with helping them learn to use their voices and become visible in ways that work for them. With COVID-19, we find ourselves needing to be differently mindful of students and to be sure to see and hear our teachers.
Emily Style writes "education needs to enable the student to look through window frames in order to see the realities of others and into mirrors in order to see her/his own reality reflected" (Curriculum As Window and Mirror, 1996).By continually asking ourselves to view each decision through the lens of equity, we are better able to make decisions in a multi-faceted way, providing both windows and mirrors.
When considering equity questions, I remind myself to recognize, acknowledge, know, remember, understand, ask, share, and apply. Putting this framework into practice, let's briefly address a commonly asked question “How is asking students to have their cameras on during class connected to equity? We just want to be sure our students are paying attention.”
- Recognize your limitations. Even the most engaged teacher or administrator cannot recognize and plan for every inequity. While knowing this is true, it is equally important to think about it as the beginning rather than the end of the discussion highlighting the necessity of our ongoing learning about our biases, including multiple points of view in decisions and creating an atmosphere of openness to learning more.
- Remember, we are in each other's homes without an invitation, permission, or a conversation ahead of time. Liza Talusan, Ph.D., a strategic consultant, and educator working a webinar about this topic offers, "For many, a home is a private place, separate from work, school, and life outside of its doors. Yet, virtual learning thrust teachers, leaders, coworkers, and peers into this private space. With a focus on content, curriculum, meetings, delivery, and engagement, the boundary between home and 'outside of home' quickly became blurred with little to no regard for how this boundary-crossing impacts the environment."
To get the school going as quickly as possible we often missed the step of discussing how we enter each other's spaces. This intrusion into each other's most intimate areas is exposing to students, parents, and teachers and creates a sense of vulnerability. Seeing into each other's spaces can also give the false sense that we know each other better, which may be true of some and is probably more true for those whose circumstances at home are not a source of discomfort, embarrassment, or judgment.
- Consider the experiences of all. Think of a student turning the camera off because she watches her siblings while her mom, as an essential employee, goes to work at the grocery store. Imagine a teacher who doesn't feel supported at school for being open as a gay man and whose home is his place to be his authentic self. Should he ask his husband not to get a snack while he is teaching because the kitchen is also the classroom? Consider the student attending a private school on financial aid who does not want his classmates to know his family's socioeconomic status. Remember the students with insecure or no housing and those who don't have computers or wi-fi.
- Know that feeling exposed raises anxiety. Increased levels of anxiety make make learning, teaching, parenting, and deciding much more difficult.
- Remember the normal. Even when students are physically in our classrooms, we aren't always able to tell if they are paying attention.
- Understand that having cameras on or off is not the most critical factor in this scenario. It is a decision schools can make quickly and uniformly if they choose to do so. To be equitable, we need to be asking other questions such as:
- How do we--and how should we--talk about equity in our schools?
- How do we create space for our school community to share their experiences comfortably?
- How do we listen to and respond to the experiences of our school community members?
- Share with students your desire to teach them with a foundation of equity and partnership. Create student communication avenues such as surveys, email, and time after class to share their individual needs.
- Apply the information gathered from the previous questions. Ask students how they can demonstrate their engagement with or without a camera. As we consider this transition, Talusan asks, "How did schools and organizations pay attention to the boundary-crossing that occurred during this time? What might schools and organizations do to engage in more culturally aware and responsive ways of entering into the home?" Administrators can ask teachers to share what has worked and what hasn't in their student, parent, and coworker interactions. Teachers can ask students what is working for them and what isn't in classrooms.
In graduate school, I learned about systems theory. In brief, systems theory is the belief that organizations are like organisms changing as circumstances change. One tenet of systems theory is that active organizations must "pay attention to the external environment and take steps to adjust itself to accommodate the changes to remain relevant. " (from Five Core Theories -- Systems Theory--Organisation Development). If we consider schools as organisms, they too will have to change with the lessons learned during COVID-19. I hope one change will be viewing the experiences of students and teachers through the lens of equity. And it's not too late to do so now. We rushed to teach online and through packets as quickly as possible and did so for the best of reasons to continue educating our students, and we have already seen many adaptations to our environment. For example, many teachers see a need to reduce the amount of time they are spending teaching and increasing the amount of time with students working together. We can message to our communities a plan to be more firmly rooted in equity and recognize that often when inequities occur, they are unnoticed by those in the decision-making process. The goal is to create systems of communication of proactive education for students, professional development for teachers, and training for parents to create systemic and sustainable support for equity for all.
Jen Cort worked as a counselor, principal, and senior administrator for 25 years before moving to consulting for schools on equity, diversity, inclusion, and justice. Jen is the host of a podcast called Third Space with Jen Cort.
The final weeks of the school year are full of bittersweet reflection on special memories and mixed feelings about the year to come. Students come together to say goodbye to their classmates for the summer, the first step in preparing themselves to come back to new teachers in the fall. For those beginning and ending middle school, it’s the start of an important transition and entirely new school experience. Underneath the outward excitement about warm weather, free time, and family vacations, the students process their hopes and fears for the coming months together, building strong friendships and opening up to new experiences.
Students making the transition into and out of middle school face the reality that they are leaving behind many of their friends and familiar routines and expectations. Things are going to be different, but they don’t entirely understand how. End-of-year celebrations and gestures of recognition usually provide some closure and give students an extra nudge forward into their next phase of education—but not this year. Some students will end their elementary school journeys, and eighth graders will finish middle school at home in front of a computer, if they have access.
As we wrap up our final units and communicate with students and their families about our schools’ plans for ending the academic year, we must take extra care to recognize the big transitions our students are making and express an understanding that they will need extra guidance and support. In AMLE’s position paper on the transition into and out of middle school, we emphasize that the transition to a new school is a process that takes place over time, not all at once during a ceremony or the first and last days of school. While some of the activities that make up your normal transition program will be more difficult to facilitate as a large group, the key factors at work are still there and still need to be addressed. It’s a good idea to review the procedural, social, and academic changes your students will be going through and work with other staff to share the responsibility of preparing students to transition while learning from home.
The biggest challenge of ending the middle school year remotely will be to establish relationships with incoming middle schoolers--who ended the year under traumatic circumstances and without typical preparation for middle school--and make more space for eighth graders to prepare for the transition to high school. They will need extra support with navigating their new school and space to voice their feelings about the upcoming transition to teachers, mentors, and each other. With communication and teamwork, school leaders, teachers, staff, parents, and students themselves can work together to ensure transitioning students build relationships at their new schools that will connect them with the knowledge and resources they need to thrive.
Here are some strategies your school can use now to ease your students’ transitions under shelter-in-place orders:
- Reach out to high schoolers to speak to your eighth grade class and prepare incoming sixth graders by reaching out to elementary schools to see what was covered and how class was conducted during the pandemic.
- Match incoming students with mentors to connect virtually or become email pen pals over the summer.
- Give your current students the opportunity to write a message or make a video for students in the incoming grade, and ask freshman classes at your high school to do the same for your eighth graders.
- Dedicate some class time to talking about the soft skills students will need to thrive in their new school. The Bridges Course at Graded, the American School of São Paulo, Brazil covers community, diversity, resiliency, and responsibility.
- Create a vertical team of middle and high school teachers in your district to focus on adapting the transition process for your current circumstances.
- Plan plenty of opportunities for peer and student mentor interaction early next school year for social and academic success.
Of course, whatever support you are able to organize at school will be greatly affected by the way each student’s family handles this transition at home. After weeks of remote learning, we know just how different each student’s home life is and how varied their parents’ ability to support and attitudes are towards schooling at home. It’s incredibly important now to show parents that teachers and school leadership are in their corner and support them with insights on how to motivate their middle schoolers at home. A strong home-to-school connection may be the most important lifeline for students in transition this year.
Ask parents to stay alert to signs of depression or anxiety in their child and seek help for students who are struggling. Whenever they identify anxieties related to their child’s new school, encourage parents to turn them into positive action by learning about those things that are anxiety-provoking (e.g., school rules, schedules, locker procedures). Encourage older siblings to connect with younger siblings to talk about their school experience and answer questions.
In order to create a moment of solidarity between students and families and raise funds for families battling cancer and at highest risk for COVID-19, AMLE has partnered with the HEADstrong Foundation on our #Family1st campaign. Friday, May 15 marks International Day of Families, and this campaign encourages families of middle schoolers to do something fun together for 27 minutes on that day or in the week following: HEADstrong will be sponsoring a TikTok Dance Challenge and awarding the family with the most creative video with gear, prizes, and recognition on social media.
Share these details with your students’ families and encourage them to participate!
On a normal school day, you could walk into any middle school classroom in the world and find a group of young people with a wide range of experiences and identities, all in a unique moment of their development as human beings. The intellectual diversity of students is one of the most fun and rewarding aspects of working with this age group, but when students and educators can’t gather in the physical space of a school, the classroom dynamics and activities teachers rely on to build the relationships that create a sense of equity are almost completely gone.
The task of “meeting students where they are” becomes much more literal and complex for educators; one of the first tasks for administrators has been to adapt breakfast and lunch programs to reach students who rely on their school to get enough to eat. The families that students typically leave at home during the school day are now ever-present as they are tasked with remote learning; for some, two parents are living and working at home, some have single parents caring for them, and some students are responsible for taking care of siblings. Most of these situations were very real and present for students before COVID-19, but now they are inescapable.
At the same time, teachers have a much harder time monitoring their students’ engagement and well-being. In the virtual classroom, a struggling student may be completely un-responsive, giving no indication why they are not engaging with learning modules or turning in work. Other students fall between the cracks and their learning gap widens because they don’t have the support they need to follow through and do their best. Assessing student work with equity in mind becomes a guessing game when each student has a different level of access to school materials and a different home experience.
If high-performing middle schools provide the best educational experience for their students when they create an equitable learning environment, how do we begin to translate those dynamics and practices to the digital space? When we get back to school, how do we use this experience to better adapt school services to meet students’ needs? It’s clear that taking a “one-size-fits-all” approach and giving all students the exact same learning opportunities is not sufficient to serve students from various backgrounds influenced by race, class, gender, and sexuality. That’s why AMLE is engaged in revising our landmark position paper This We Believe, scheduled for release this fall, to take these differences into account as things to be respected and embraced rather than considered a deficit or ignored.
Educators should examine how they can build a school community that models equity for students and families through policies and a culture that acknowledges differences and ensures that students are not punished for them. Students should see themselves reflected in that culture and expect to be respected as individuals. ALL school staff, including teachers, counselors, aides, and administrative and support staff can affirm the voices of all students in the school community.
Educators who practice continuous self-assessment and improvement should always be asking “What am I not seeing?” Teachers need to acknowledge their own cultural background to see their blind spots and gain an understanding of the complex social realities that students are experiencing, as they are always influenced by social identities. Modeling this kind of social responsibility and giving students the opportunity to do so ensures a culturally relevant and respectful education, which colorblind pedagogies are rarely able to provide.
The conversation on making middle school education a truly equitable experience is only just beginning. We have prioritized discussions on equity in our webinars and #mschats, so check out our upcoming topics and get involved!
The value of setting a learning framework with student input during remote learning
Norms are the patterns of behavior defining how we treat each other, ourselves, and our shared spaces. Norms exist in all physical and virtual classrooms. We often create norms at transition points such as the start of the year, term, or quarter. Typically, norms are listed on the walls, are not revisited often, and may be communicated to parents.
Norms exist in all settings. The question is, are they created intentionally or unintentionally? For example, when in school, intentional norms about seating are to assign seats and unintentional norms are when there is no seating assignment, but students sit in the same places each day. Intentional norms are essential and are attached to values. Intentional norms provide routines, agreements, consistency, and a framework for addressing difficult situations.
When reviewed consistently and created with equal contributions of students and teachers, intentional norms provide the guardrails for the classroom. Imagine the norms are the frame around a beautiful picture, with the picture being a reflection of students and teachers working together.
With COVID-19 bringing an entirely new teaching environment, many teachers find themselves reactively creating norms when situations arise. A teacher started her remote class and was frustrated because some of her students were in bed. Telling the students they must all be out of bed at the start of class elicited immediate negative responses. In this case, the teacher created a norm (must be out of bed) without attaching a value (presenting as “ready to learn”) or inviting students into the discussion.
Realizing values and student voice were missing, the teacher reframed the experience asking herself:
- What are the classroom values I want the norm to support?
- How will I communicate the values to the students?
- How will the student's voice be invited into, and heard, in the discussion?
- In what areas am I willing or unwilling to be flexible?
- How will I ask students what might be missing?
The teacher started class the next day with “I realize I forgot to have a norms discussion. The value I want our norms to support is showing up ready to learn, and I want us to work together to identify how this looks, feels, and sounds. While flexibility is important, some boundaries are necessary, including limiting outside distractions and listening for learning, rather than debate. Let's work together to create our norms, given how quickly things are changing; we will revisit our norms during our last class on Friday and will adjust as needed.”
The teacher asked students to be ready to co-construct norms the next day and invited them to share concerns privately if they had critical contributing factors they didn't feel comfortable sharing with the entire class. COVID-19 and remote learning disproportionately impact students with mental health concerns, physical disabilities, learning differences, lower socioeconomic status, and students who are members of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, question/queer) community, and more. These experiences may be challenging to share with the entire class while being mindful of your school's requirements, so it is essential to create communication streams to allow students to share.
Learning online--and therefore viewing other's homes--can cause students, parents, and teachers to feel exposed. Addressed thoughtfully, the use of norms can help reduce instances of invasion of privacy. When the teacher invited students to share outside of class one student offered that he was in bed during class because it was the only spot in his room where his classmates could not see that he shared a small room with two siblings, while another shared that her anxiety was elevated with COVID-19, and being in her bed made her feel safer.
When the class met to work on norms, the teacher reminded them of the importance of equity. Without providing any identifying information, she incorporated questions such as, “how might we ensure we are not causing someone to disclose a private part of their lives while also being in class together?” The students and teacher collaborated and decided that to be in bed was allowed as were virtual backgrounds, however, students needed to be sitting up, dressed, and presenting as ready to learn.
Our “classrooms” are different now, calling into question how we create norms when nothing is normal. We might consider that while our settings are different, our need to treat each other with fundamental decency is unchanged. Therefore, we create intentional norms by:
- Outlining the goals and benefits of norms.
- Connecting all norms to values, noting those classroom practices not connected to values are probably habits rather than norms and may be unnecessary.
- Including the student voice, giving think-time, outlining the expectations of the discussion, and allowing personal concerns to be raised outside of the group discussion.
- Communicating your boundaries, remembering most of us are frustrated when we believe we are working as a group and the facilitator (in this case, the teacher) has not communicated intended outcomes or “no go” areas before the discussion.
- Ensuring you include norms for how the group will respond when the norms are challenged.
- Reviewing and revising regularly.
- Communicating the norms with students and parents or guardians.
If you are wondering where to start, you might pick one of your classroom values, use the steps above to plan, develop words to use with students, consider the “what if's” including how you will respond to challenges, and permit yourself to revise as needed. Intentional norms are even more critical as we are all faced with so many new situations, and we are comforted by as much consistency as possible.
More ideas on creating norms
Jen Cort worked as a counselor, principal, and senior administrator for 25 years before moving to consulting for schools on equity, diversity, inclusion, and justice. Jen is the host of a podcast called Third Space with Jen Cort.
Four ways educators can lean into discomfort
To get from Reno to Lake Tahoe School in Incline
Village, Nevada, a school official had to drive me up
6,500 feet of steep, narrow roads lined with snow
banks. The air thinned as we ascended above the
clouds, so she handed me two Advil as soon as we
arrived. I needed to be able to present throughout the
day and couldn’t afford to get a migraine.
“Altitude sickness—that’s a new one,” I told
Bob Graves, the head of school, as we chatted that
morning in his office. “I’m used to worrying about the
talking part. Until recently, public speaking terrified
me.” If Bob was alarmed, he hid it well. “Really? What
changed for you?” he asked.
The short answer was that I was tired of getting in
my own way, and I felt inauthentic prodding students
to stretch while I played it safe. I had interviewed
dozens of experts on risk-taking over the years and
decided it was time to apply their advice to myself.
We’re all works in progress, and the start of a new
decade is a good time to relinquish a few fears and
chase long-shelved goals. As educators, we can spend
so much time helping students realize their potential
that we neglect our own growth. That's a mistake. If
we want students to lean into discomfort, we have to
take risks, too.
No matter where you are or what you hope to
accomplish, here are four strategies that can help you
summon the courage to fail.
Forget about yourself.
At my last school, I had to present to a small group of
parents in the school library. You would have thought
I had to give a TED talk to thousands. I couldn’t sleep
for days before the event and was thoroughly depleted
by the time it was over. I never wanted to feel that
way again. I knew that small exposures extinguish
phobias, so I resolved to accept every speaking
invitation that came my way.
Fast forward a few years. I was about to deliver
my first keynote address but got cold feet when I
realized 600 educators would be in the audience. I
retreated to the booth above the auditorium to pull
myself together. After I took a few deep breaths, I
texted Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure. She
not only is one of the few people I know who presents
all the time, she’s the type of person who will stop
whatever she’s doing to help a friend. I prayed that
she could get me back in working order.
“I can’t do this,” I told her. “I feel sick. There are
too many people here, and they’re all going to be
staring at me.” She kindly but firmly told me that no
one cared about me. At all. “They want to know if you
can help them help kids," she said. “That’s it.” She
then suggested I play “You Will Be Found,” from the
musical DEAR EVAN HANSEN. I listened to the lyrics,
which describe a teen boy in emotional pain who
desperately wants to be seen. Once I took myself out
of the equation, I was good to go.
Start with the end goal.
Everyone defines risk differently. You might think it’s
no big deal to apply for a promotion, but shy away
from social risks. An educator might not apply for a
team leader position because they don’t want to step
on the toes of a friend who wants the position. Or a
teacher might hesitate to express a contrary view at a
faculty meeting because they worry they'll alienate or
Many years ago, I initiated the screening process
for a vulnerable student who needed academic
interventions. A couple members of the special
education team told me in advance that they opposed
giving the child an IEP, so the tension was thick even
before the first meeting. I anticipated a battle and did
my homework but was stunned when the team cast
protocol aside and hastily voted against services.
I never questioned whether I should report the
infraction, but that meant calling out a couple of my own
colleagues. I was scared that I’d permanently damage
already-strained relationships. To deal with my fear, I
shifted my focus to the end goal. I reminded myself that
the student’s right to a fair process mattered far more
than my discomfort. I shared my concerns with the
principal, who determined that the child’s rights had
been violated and instructed us to start over.
Take starter risks.
Risk-taking is like building muscle—it’s a slow,
incremental process. To boost your confidence, take
starter risks. If you don’t feel ready to present at a
national conference, consider a local conference. If
that’s too big a risk, try asking a question at the end
of someone else’s presentation. If you aspire to write a
book, start by submitting an article or contributing to
a blog. If you’re not ready to share your ideas publicly,
keep a journal, take a writing seminar, or post
comments in a closed Facebook group.
The categories of risk don’t have to match. For
example, if you want to change jobs but resist change,
practice flexibility by trying a different gym or
running route. Or join a recreational basketball team
with players you don't know.
Capture the underdog effect.
Perhaps someone told you that you’re the wrong
person to lead a new initiative, or run a staff meeting,
or present at a conference. Or maybe you applied for
a job and were told you don’t have what it takes to be
successful. Instead of letting others define your limits,
leverage the underdog effect. A recent study found
that people who believe that others do not expect
them to do well are more likely to receive higher
performance evaluations from their supervisors. They
work extra hard to prove others wrong. If there’s no
setback, there can be no comeback.
It took me a long time to submit my first article
to The Washington Post. I not only questioned
whether my ideas were worth sharing, I worried
that others would judge me for thinking I had ideas
worth sharing. And then my first piece ran, and my
worst fears came to life. A colleague called me a self-promoter and told me I had no business writing
anything. I already was plagued by self-doubt, and
the criticism nearly derailed me. But it also was a gift
in disguise. No way was I going to stop writing and
validate that person’s off-base assumptions about me.
Frustration kept me moving forward.
Use negativity to your advantage. In fact, take
special note of whatever trait most irritates your
critics. If you amplify it, you might discover it’s your
secret superpower. Stubbornness can morph into
determination. Intensity can generate laser focus.
Distractibility can lead to sudden bursts of insight.
It's not easy to take risks. All sorts of things can
get in the way. But when we lean into discomfort and
act with intentionality, we get to narrate our own
story. And isn't that what we want to be modeling for
Phyllis L. Fagell, LCPC is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, MD, and the author of Middle School Matters (Hachette Book Group, 2019). Phyllis also writes The Kappan's weekly Career Confidential column and tweets.
Tools for rehearsing responses to expressions of bias and racism in ourselves and others
An hour later, I had a list of all the things I should
have said but didn’t. My colleague had failed to notice
racist elements in her comments in the department
meeting. In the moment, though, I was stunned,
then angry: How could she not see it? How could she
perpetuate the very thing we promised to eliminate?
With rising adrenaline, I knew if I spoke, I’d stammer,
my eyes watering a bit, and it would be an incoherent
spew creating defensiveness from the offending
colleague. So, I bit my tongue, wallowed in self righteousness,
and promised myself to vent with a
trusted colleague in another department. I heard and
processed nothing else during the meeting.
It was not a proud moment.
We navigate many constituencies in our education
lives: our students, their parents, administration,
public opinion, researchers, political expediency,
social media, and our own moral compasses. As
a result, our world is full of regretted instants of
would’ve-could’ve-should’ve. Sometimes, or a lot of
times, we succumb to self-preservation at the expense
of professionalism and students’ rights. T.S. Eliot
captures it in, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,”
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
…But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat,
And in short, I was afraid.
— Collected Poems 1909-1962 (1963),
To say the right thing at the right time, especially
with something so urgent and affecting as bias and
racism, is on conscientious educators’ daily radar, but
it can be difficult without rehearsal or versatility. So,
let’s rehearse our responses to expressions of bias
and racism in ourselves and others so those responses
are at our mental fingertips in the moment when
they are needed. And let’s build that wide collection
of constructive responses so we are flexible and
strategic in our statements. Consider the following as
a starting point:
Invite Deeper Conversations
- “Some people would see that as a racist comment.
Is that what you intended?”
- Play “innocent” and ask, “I don’t get it. How is that
- As needed, give people the benefit of the doubt
- Maybe you heard it differently or just didn’t
understand: “I’m sorry. Can you say that again? I
may have misheard you.”
- “Is this something you would have said to a white/
- “It’s been my experience that… Is this something
- “Tell me more about that.”
- Ask questions of integrity and authenticity:
- “Where does that thinking come from? Is that an
unrecognized, inherited narrative?”
- “Does that comment come from a place of nurture
and support, or something else?”
- “How does that align with your school/family/
- Paraphrase — When responding to someone who
questions our ideas or believes differently than we
do, it helps to start with a clarifying question, not a
re-defense of our opinion:
- What I hear you saying is…
- Let me make sure I have this correct…
- In sum, then, you are worried that…
- Do I have that right?
- Did I hear that correctly?
- It sounds like you’re saying that…
- Change the frame/box/reality the biased/racist/
sexist person assumes is in play: “There are
more elements here that take the issue beyond a
binary classification: liberal/progressive, male/
female, black/white, Christian/Muslim, affluent/
impoverished, heterosexual/homosexual. It’s an
intersection of at least four factors…”
- Connect the offensive comments to larger, systemic
causes of racism:
“[After seeing a racial slur used by a teacher on
Facebook] This behavior is linked to the increased
suspension, expulsion, and detention of Hispanic
youth in our schools and sets a bad example of
behavior for the children witnessing the teacher’s
racism that will influence the way these children
are treated by their peers, and how they are treated
as adults,” [and,] “That’s racist and it contributes to
false beliefs about black workers that keeps them
from even being interviewed for jobs…”
— p. 34-35, Oluo
- Raise bias awareness, suggest a change of wording:
“How would that perspective be different if we used
different words? For example, “What if we said,
‘our employees,’ instead of, “the Chinese in our
company? How about, “retired veterans” instead of,
“old geezers?” or, “our software engineer” instead
of, “that autistic hire?”
- Start with common ground: “Most of us want to
feel like we have something to contribute, that
we belong, would you agree?” “Neither one of us
wants to be diminished by the other…” “What’s our
goal here – to be heard? To vent and move on? Our
- If it’s easier, start with discussions of the challenges
with gender and religious discrimination, then move
to racial discrimination.
- Ask permission:
- Would you mind if I shared an idea that comes to mind?
- May I ask a question that may seem off topic but
that may be helpful?
- Would you care to work together to solve that
- I’d like to ask a someone else about how she
handles such situations. Would that be okay with
you? (based on – Toll, p. 75)
- Give testimonials about what you believe. Choose
not to remain indifferent. Realize you are modeling
for others how to demonstrate courage of conviction,
standing up for what you believe is morally right.
- Borrow from educational coaching questions as you
work through a concern with a colleague:
- How do you feel the conversation went?
- Would you have said anything differently?
- What was your goal there?
- What do you mean by….?
- Are we diminished or threatened in some way by
the elevation of someone else’s priorities/religion/
- Is there another way to…?
- How does that further your goal?
- Describe a time when this was successful for you.
- Let’s consider the situation from his/her point of
- What does that tell you?
- Is there anything to that?
- Can you give an example of….?
- Can you describe that further?
- Let’s rehearse that moment
- What do you recall about your own behavior
during the conversation/lesson?
- And what else?
- How could we re-phrase that to better
communicate your intent?
- What did you do/decide that added to—or
- “If this problem were solved what would it look
like?” (Toll, p. 32)
- What would a respected colleague do in this
- Let’s brainstorm some possibilities together.
- Challenge statements of, “I’m colorblind,” and,
“I don’t see race.” Start the conversation with,
“You may not be aware of this, but such a mindset
actually is a form of oppression of students of color.
Could we talk about that for a moment?” Later,
you may want to add, “When these statements are
made by those in power, usually white teachers,
they immediately diminish any student of color,
declaring that their full identities and all that
shapes them isn’t worth perceiving. I get that you’re
trying to demonstrate that you see your students as
individuals separate from any racial generalizations
and stereotypes and thereby, you think you are not
biased, but this very sentiment, let alone the act,
comes from a place of privilege, being the majority
race in power. It denies all that makes students of
color full individuals. I wonder if we could use our
privilege to confront and dismantle such thinking
In February 2020, high school teacher, author,
and Education Week blogger, Larry Ferlazzo posed
the question, “What are the best ways to respond
to educators who say they don’t see race when
they teach?” He invited experts and classroom
practitioners to weigh in on the constructive
responses. You can find the full, five-part series of
blogs with dozens of responses at Larry’s Education
Week blog site listed in the citing sources below.
Here are a few of the compelling responses that
have considerable power to spark conversation and
How can you (an educator) have a relationship with
me (a student) if you do not acknowledge all that
makes me who I am? Diverse relationships should
be sought out with the intention to honor one's
— Makeda Brome, instructional math coach at
Fort Pierce Westwood Academy in Fort Pierce,
Florida, St. Lucie Public Schools Teacher of the
The impetus to pretend that one is colorblind when
it comes to race is a misguided attempt to treat all students the same, when all students, even within
any racial group, are different. The impetus to
pretend that one is colorblind is essentially racist.
It is wielding the power to erase the identity of
students. To refuse to see.
— Jamila Lyiscott, co-founder/director of the
Center of Racial Justice and Youth Engaged
Research, author of Black Appetite. White Food:
Issues of Race, Voice, and Justice Within and
Beyond the Classroom
“Not seeing race” is an easy way out because if
those educators saw race, they would see how
systemic racism has affected every aspect of the
education system. When educators tell me that
race doesn't matter, I say that they've erased an
opportunity to be anti-racist. They've squandered
the moment and made it about them and their so called
forward way of thinking instead of actually
doing what's best for their students…
— Julie Jee teaches 12 Advanced Placement
English Literature and Composition and
The statement, “I don't see race,” represents the
height of selfishness particularly when made by
an educator. It says essentially, “I don't see your
entire-life perspective as meriting my consideration.
I will tell you how I think you should experience
your existence.” …[It] is a selfish sentiment because
it requires that students suspend their worldview
in favor of vantage points that are more consistent
with your own. It says, I will value your perspective
given the extent to which it agrees with mine….
This is…a form of cultural imperialism.
— Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D., works with
districts around the country to identify root
causes of achievement gaps and formulate
pedagogy and policy-based efforts to redress
the under performance of vulnerable student
[A]n important part of my response is to feel
where I myself am still shaky as I engage with this
person…Do I stumble or hedge when I…need to
respond to an argument that blames marginalized people for their own marginalization? …So much
of what I encounter every day as a white person
will lead me to think that I am what's normal, and
things are essentially as they should be. In the face
of that, it is hard and sometimes lonely work to
acknowledge that the world is wrong.
— Sarah Norris works with educators across the
country to create more equitable spaces for
teaching and learning
Racial history emerges as a source of pride when
seen through the lens of resistance and survival
against difficult odds…. Research shows that
avoiding the topic with children serves to create
racist mindsets, while investigating race correlates
to higher self-esteem, increased self-confidence,
academic achievement, and ethical leadership…
Until racism can be seen, it can't be addressed.
Until it is addressed, it can't be undone.
— Martha Caldwell and Oman Frame, authors
of Let's Get Real: Exploring Race, Class, and
Gender Identities in the Classroom, and co founders
of iChange Collaborative
Express Direct Desists
- Stay silent, make steady eye contact.
- Be direct: “I find that racist, and I’m not okay with
that. It’s inappropriate.”
- “You may not have meant to offend me, but you did.
And this happens to people of color all the time. If
you do not mean to offend, you will stop doing this.”
- P. 173, Oluo
- “You just assumed that without evidence. Let’s take
a look at the evidence and correct that perspective.”
- Explain that your being upset at the racist/
prejudicial comment or joke is not a matter of
political correctness. It’s an indication that society
has evolved and what was once funny or acceptable,
is no longer so.
- Walk away. Wait 24 hours. If possible, and no one
will be harmed, wait one day, think clearly, then
bring up the subject again with the offending person.
Avoid Blaming, Deflecting, Generalizing,
or Being Dismissive
Examples of these unhelpful statements include:
- “It’s your fault because you’re a racist.”
- “No, it’s your fault because you expect something
- “If __ people weren’t so self-centered…”
- “If __ people weren’t so crime prone…”
- “They can just get used to using the bathroom
associated with their birth gender. It’s not the end
of the world.”
- “I didn’t intend it as a racist comment, they just
took it that way.”
- “This is just more liberal clamoring from Political
- “There are already enough books on LGBTQ
students. You’re just pushing your social agenda.”
- “But these white, male authors are canon. To not
teach them is not preparing them for society.”
- “You’re such a conservative, you have no heart for
the struggles of these people.”
- “I can’t be racist: I don’t hate any people of color,
I’m not in a white supremacist group, I don’t read
those webpages, nor do I do any act of prejudice
or racism with anyone I know.”
Helpful Dispositions During the
- Give every clue that you value time with those of
other cultures/orientations/faiths/politics as well
as those with whom you disagree. Honor what the
other person brings to the conversation. Make that
- Avoid publicly searching for a diplomatic way to
word something before saying it: “Let me put this
in a way you’d understand….” “How shall I put
this?” This is demeaning of the other person, like
he’s simplistic and incapable of understanding
- If giving feedback in the moment, comment on
decisions made and their outcomes: “I noticed you…
As a result, we… Is that what you wanted?”
- White silence in racist or biased situations or
policies is consent. Say or do something if at all
possible. It’s the same with other situations of bias/
prejudice against certain religions, gender, sexual
orientation, or socio-economic class.
- Avoid backing people into a corner unless their
statements were unusually egregious. People don’t
hear the message when they have to protect their
honor or status. Help them find a road back to respect.
- Speak in such a way as to continue thoughtful
dialog, not prove that you are right or the problem is
solved. It’s not about you providing the solution, it’s
about the person arriving there.
- Accept the fact that these conversations rarely tie
up into a nice, neat bow where everyone sees the
light and has come to their senses. We’ll have to be
tolerant, at least at first, of messy human progress,
ambiguity, unseen changes in perspective, irritation/pushback as a way to sort one’s thinking, and
unresolved issues from the other person’s past—and
our own!—affecting the current conversation.
- Sit or stand next to the victim of someone being
attacked for his or her race, gender, politics, or socioeconomic
standing to assure them that they are not
alone, and to communicate clearly to the offending
person where you stand on the issue.
- When considering whether or not to come to the aid
of a person of color receiving racist or discriminatory
comments, take the lead of that person and do it
only if they are already engaged in it. (based on an
idea in Oluo, p. 174)
- Ask yourself if you’re deflecting to another topic
rather than hearing and addressing the one raised
by the other person.
- “If you’re white and being called a racist, remember
that you are not the only one being hurt.” p. 222,
- We fight systemic racism not because we’re doing
people of color a favor, but because this is what
decent people do. “[We] are not owed gratitude or
friendship from people of color for [our] efforts. We
are not thanked for cleaning our own houses.” p.
- Not everyone in our place of employment shares our
views regarding politics or race. Avoid assuming
they do simply because they are members of this
same group as you.
- Use the first person, plural, we, not I or you as you
can. It’s more inclusive, like we’re in this together.
- Use tentative language (seems, might) and open ended
questions that come across as a mutual
partner in resolving the problem.
- Breathe several times before responding.
- Forgive yourself and others for making mistakes
in these conversations, including inexact wording,
unintended use of stereotypes, muddled thinking,
and outright offending others.
- Discuss systemic racism with people of our own
color, and not just when there’s an upsetting racial
incident. We’re able to respond more constructively
when there is a racial/homophobic/religion-phobic
incident when we already have the tools and
perspective for the conversation.
With Prufrock, T.S Eliot had us sincerely wonder
who we were to disturb the universe. Dylan Thomas
admonished us to not, “go gentle into that good
night,” and to instead, “rage, rage against the dying of
the light.” Let’s draw from this welling moral outrage
and our all-consuming desire for a just world and find
the courage to react in a timely and effective manner
to bias and racism, whether it be subtle or overt. Let’s
care enough about our students and our colleagues to
extend candor and to walk with them –and our own
limitations—as we share the path ahead. This courage
comes more readily when we have specific and
practiced tools, so to simply read a few paragraphs of
an article and promise to do better doesn’t cut it. Let’s
say these challenging statements aloud and in front of
colleagues in rehearsal and in real use, making them
our own. Let’s find meaning in those conversations,
and with that, the stamina to dismantle our own biases, and the strength to confront that which
would oppress another. No more, would’ve-could’ve-should’ve
– we’re ready to respond.
Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations
to Restore Hope to the Future, Second Edition
by Margaret Wheatley, Berrett-Koehler
The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies
for School Transformation by Elena Aguilar,
Instructional Coaching: A Partnership Approach
to Improving Instruction by Jim Knight, Corwin
Teaching Tolerance (Southern Poverty Law
Mayorga, Edwin; Picower, Bree. What’s Race
Got to Do With It? How Current School Reform
Policy Maintains Racial and Economic Inequity,
Peter Lang Publishers, 2015
Pollock, Mica; SchoolTalk: Rethinking What
We Say About – And To – Students Every Day
(Laying a Foundation for Equity), The New
Press, New York, 2017
Stevenson, Howard C. Promoting Racial Literacy
in Schools: Differences That Make a Difference,
Teachers College, 2014
Tatum, Alfred W. Reading for Their Life (Re)
Building the Textual Lineages of African
American Adolescent Males, Heinemann, 2009
For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and
the Rest of Y’all, Too: Reality Pedagogy and
Urban Education by Christopher Emdin, Beacon
White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White
People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo,
Beacon Press, 2018
Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty:
Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap,
Second Edition, by Paul C. Gorski, Teachers
College Press, 2017
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates,
Spiegel & Grau, 2015
Witnessing Whiteness: The Need to Talk About
Race and How to Do It, Second Edition by Shelly
Tochluk, R&L Education, 2010
How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, One
Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and
the End of Public Education by Noliwe Rooks,
The New Press, 2017
Culture, Class, and Race: Constructive
Conversations That Unite and Energize your
School and Community by Brenda Campbell
Jones, Shannon Keeny, and Franklin
CampbellJones, ASCD , 2020
Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence:
Understanding and Facilitating Difficult
Dialogues on Race, Sue, Derald Wing, Wiley,
Ferlazzo, Larry – Blog, “Saying 'I Don't See Color'
Denies the Racial Identity of Students, “February 2,
2020 10:34 PM, https://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/classroom_qa_with_larry_ferlazzo/2020/02
/saying_i_dont_see_color_denies_the_racial_identity_of_students.html, Twitter: @Larryferlazzo.
Oluo, Ijeoma; So You Want to Talk about Race, Seal
Press (Hachette Book Group), 2018
Toll, Cathy A. Educational Coaching: A Partnership for
Problem Solving. ASCD. 2018.
Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant, and
author living in Herndon, Virginia. His book, The Collected
Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy, Good Stuff
I Learned about Teaching Along the Way, is available
from www.amle.org/store. His book, Fair Isn't Always Equal
(second edition) (Stenhouse Publishers), was released in
2018, and his latest book, Summarization in any Subject:
60 Innovative, Tech-Infused Strategies for Deeper Student
Learning, (second edition) (ASCD), co-authored with Dedra
Stafford, was just released.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2020.
Physical movement helps students engage in, investigate, and understand mathematics concepts
Young adolescents undergo more rapid and
profound changes than at any other time in their
development (NMSA, 2010). Adolescence is a pivotal
stage for cognitive, social-emotional, and physical
development. Middle school educators understand
the developmental uniqueness of this age group and
seek to provide activities that fully engage the young
adolescent. One way to accomplish this is through
kinesthetic learning. We define kinesthetic learning
as an instructional strategy that connects physical
movement and social interaction with academic
content. Kinesthetic activities incorporate physical
exercise, stretching, and cross-body movements and
are specifically connected to subject matter. The goal
is to get students actively engaged and “learning by doing” as they investigate mathematics concepts
through physical movement.
The Importance of Physical Activity
According to the U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services (2018), adolescence “is a critical
period for developing movement skills, learning
healthy habits, and establishing a firm foundation
for lifelong health and well-being” (p. 47). Regular
physical activity in children and adolescents
promotes health and fitness, and the beneficial
effects of exercise on learning are well documented.
Movement increases the heart rate and stimulates
brain function, which facilitates a child’s ability to
learn. The U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services specifically advocates physical activity for
brain health. They state that regular physical activity
“results in improved cognition including performance
on academic achievement tests, executive function,
processing speed, and memory” (p. 40) as well as a
reduced risk of depression. The cognitive benefits of
physical activity apply to all students, including those
with conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity
Numerous studies support the conclusion that
physical activity has a positive influence on memory,
concentration, and classroom behavior. These studies
indicate a significant positive correlation between
fitness and standardized test scores in math.
Furthermore, students who are more physically fit
have fewer absences and fewer disciplinary referrals.
These findings remain statistically significant when
controlling for race, socioeconomic status, and gender.
There are many ways to actively engage students in
learning mathematics content. Students “learn by
doing” when they use their hands, arms, legs, and
bodies as tools for learning. We advocate the use of
purposeful movement that is directly connected to
the content being taught. This is very different than
asking students to recite multiplication tables while
doing jumping jacks. We argue that many students
have procedural knowledge but lack conceptual
Instead of asking students to memorize isolated facts
and algorithms, consider asking students to dramatize
mathematics concepts through motion. For example,
students can act out points on a Cartesian coordinate
system and walk through shifting and stretching
functions. A Twister mat can be used to introduce the
concept to younger students. Other kinesthetic activities might include acting out operations on a number
line; teaching translations, rotations, and reflections
by dancing the Electric Slide; and finding the mean,
median, and mode of a data set after constructing a
human graph. What follows are descriptions of three
kinesthetic activities that can be used to support and
extend specific mathematics concepts.
The Metric Handshake/Metric Salute
Many students in the U.S. struggle to associate
benchmarks to metric units of length. In order to
strengthen their knowledge, hands-on measuring is
beneficial. Estimating using familiar body measures
can assist with foundational understanding. For
example, for a young adolescent, the distance
between one shoulder bone and the length of the
other arm with fingers extended is about one meter.
The distance between the space from the thumb and
pinky is approximately one decimeter. The distance
across the tip of the pinky is approximately one
centimeter. The thickness of a fingernail is about
one millimeter. This leads to a fun, cool handshake
students can use to greet one another.
Listed here are step-by-step motions for practicing
four basic benchmark measures of length.
- While holding your right hand with fingers
extended to your left shoulder in a saluting
formation, call out “Salute.”
- Extend your right hand, palm down with fingers
straight, from the left shoulder position to fully
extended to the right. Say, “meter.”
- Move palm up and extend thumb and pinky finger
(pointer, tall man, and ring man fingers curled
down into palm). Say, “decimeter.”
- Hold the pinky in a vertical position while folding
in all other fingers. Call out, “centimeter.”
- Rotate the pinky a quarter turn to display the
thickness of the fingernail. Call out, “millimeter.”
- For additional cool factor and pizzazz, students
can join pinkies to finalize the metric signals in a
Angle exercises utilize the arms as the rays of an
angle. While everyone is standing, the leader calls
a type of angle while the others attempt to model
it. To model a right angle, for example, hold one arm
parallel to the floor in a horizontal direction and the
other in a vertical direction. To model an acute angle,
position the arms closer together with a narrow space
between them. Modeling an obtuse angle moves the
arms wider. Arms extended in opposite directions
represents a straight angle of 180°. To challenge
students and accelerate the pace, gradually increase
the call rate of the angle types. If space is limited, it
may be necessary to use fingers instead of arms to
demonstrate the angles.
Once the basic angle concepts are introduced,
prompt students to consider other measurements. If
a right angle is 90°, what is the measure of half that
angle? What type of angle is it? What if an angle is
exactly halfway between a right angle and a straight
angle? What type of angle is it? What is its measure?
Discuss that an acute angle is between 0° and 90°.
Discuss characteristics of obtuse angles and the
measures between 90° and 180°. Progress to calling
more complex angles using specific measurements. The students’ performance with the arm motions can
provide valuable formative assessment opportunities.
Angle exercises establish benchmark
measurements and set the foundation for students’
progression to measuring angles with a protractor.
We can then connect their arm motions with the
procedure for precision measuring with the protractor.
Help your students learn the characteristics of
quadrilaterals. Students often find it difficult to
classify quadrilaterals and distinguish between the
categories. Is a square a rectangle? Is a rectangle a
square? Are all rectangles squares? Are rectangles
parallelograms? Some rectangles are rhombi. All
squares are rhombi, rectangles, and parallelograms.
Quadrilateral stretches will give students the
opportunity to model quadrilaterals and explore
how small changes impact their similarities and
- With a little stretch of the imagination and the
arms, students can make air figures modeling
quadrilaterals. Start by demonstrating a common
quadrilateral. To model a square, hold both arms
up in front of your body and bent at the elbows.
With forearms straight up and equidistant, the
width represents congruent sides. Imagine the top
and bottom sides. With all sides equal and right
angles, the quadrilateral is a square.
- From this position, stretch the square by
sliding the forearms to the right (and/or left).
The quadrilateral changes to a rectangle (and
technically a parallelogram). Lean both forearms to
the right to transform the rectangle into a unique parallelogram. This demonstrates a lazy, leaning
parallelogram by holding both arms up bent at
the elbows, shoulder length apart, and tilted in
the same direction. The arms represent the width.
Imagine the top and bottom sides as the length.
In a parallelogram, opposite sides are congruent
and parallel. Keeping the forearms tilted, slide the
arms toward each other until the width aligns with
the height. The parallelogram has now achieved
another title, transforming into a rhombus.
Straighten the shape with vertical forearms again
and re-make the square.
- Vary the order of the quadrilateral stretches and
discuss how stretching and tilting, widening,
narrowing, transforms the shape and changes its
properties. Slide the forearms back together and
upright to re-create the square. Discuss the various
names of the figure. Tilt the square to create a
rhombus. Stretch the square to create a rectangle.
- Start with a leaning parallelogram. Slide the
forearms in to make a rhombus. Stand it upright
to make a square. Stretch the square to make
a rectangle. All squares are parallelograms,
rectangles, and rhombi. Some rhombi are squares,
but only when they have right angles.
- Be sure to emphasize that there are several ways
to model parallelograms. All square, rectangles,
and rhombi are classified as parallelograms.
- Create a trapezoid by collapsing one vertical side
of a square or rectangle. Identify the stretch as
modeling a “right trapezoid.” What figure can be
demonstrated by collapsing both vertical sides—an
- To challenge students and accelerate the pace,
gradually increase the call rate of the types of
Middle level educators value young adolescents
and understand the complex developmental needs
of this age group. Kinesthetic learning facilitates
students’ physical development by providing more
opportunities for movement; social development
with more interaction; emotional development with
more engagement; and cognitive development
with active learning. Kinesthetic strategies offer purposeful learning experiences and provide
alternatives to whole-class lecture. Students learn
by doing as they move their bodies to investigate
mathematics concepts. We all want our students to
be active learners rather than passively receiving
information. We argue that physical movement and
social interaction are essential in the middle school
classroom. In this way, teachers can meet the unique
developmental needs of young adolescents while
effectively teaching mathematics content.
National Middle School Association. (2010). This we
believe: Keys to educating young adolescents.
Westerville, OH: Author.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2018).
Physical activity guidelines for Americans (2nd
ed.). Washington, DC. Retrieved from: https://health.gov/paguidelines/second-edition/pdf/Physical_Activity_Guidelines_2nd_edition.pdf
Deborah McMurtrie, PH.D. is an assistant professor
and middle level education coordinator /program director
for South Carolina’s Center of Excellence in Middle-level
Interdisciplinary Strategies for Teaching (CEMIST) at the
University of South Carolina, Aiken.
Bridget Coleman, PH.D. is an assistant professor and
leads the Secondary Mathematics Education program
at the University of South Carolina, Aiken. She’s also the
past president of the South Carolina Professors of Middle
Level Education (SC-PoMLE).
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2020.
Engaging middle schoolers in local issues helps them apply knowledge and become informed citizens
Environmental science knowledge intertwined with
cultural practices have ripple effects that impact many
aspects of society. For example, the increase in the use
of fertilizer and practices of overfishing have resulted
in red tides and dead zones within waterways, where
nothing is able to grow. It is important for students to
have formal instruction to engage with these topics,
preparing them to be scientifically literate members
of society. A powerful way to engage middle school
learners is to use socio-scientific issues to teach
environmental science. Socio-scientific issues (SSI) are
those that deal with topics that can be debated and
relate scientific understanding to making real world
decisions (Zeidler & Kahn, 2014).
We cannot assume that middle school students
have had experience with meaningful high-quality,
hands-on science units. Therefore, it is important
to provide them with appropriately challenging
coursework that meets individual needs. Teaching
with SSIs reaches students that come to the classroom
with a wide range of background knowledge. This
article provides an example of an SSI unit in which
students review their knowledge of scientific thinking,
ask self-designed experimental questions, and conduct
an experiment to test their question. Their final
writing project allows students to use their knowledge
of science and their community to propose a solution
to a local need. First, a brief overview will be provided
about the value of these types of strategies.
Benefits of Exploring Local Socio-Scientific Issues
The National Science Teaching Association (NSTA)
asserts that students need to know, understand, and
be able to apply their knowledge of science (NSTA,
2016). This is part of being a scientifically literate
member of society. To do this, students must be
exposed to lessons that explore socio-scientific issues
and be taught how to use their knowledge in a local
context. Learning in this manner is highly engaging
and personalizes science as a practice for students
(Birmingham & Barton, 2013). Additionally, using local
events provides an opportunity for students to connect
personal experiences to the content they are learning
and allows them to contribute to the community.
The utilization of SSIs also supports the middle
school concept advocated for by AMLE. For example,
students learn science concepts and applications
in the science classroom, discuss issues of policy in
social studies, refine their writing and communication
skills in English language arts, and plan for budgets in
the mathematics classroom. Integrated learning such
as this is a powerful method for students to make realworld
connections and understand content at a deeper
level. In the next section, a brief unit of instruction is
provided that demonstrates an example of teaching an
SSI in the context of an ecology lesson.
SSI Environmental Science Lesson
This unit of instruction allows students to apply
scientific practices in context and makes learning
relevant for students. It fits in an instructional
sequence where students have previously learned
about asking scientific questions, experimental
design, and a basic knowledge of ecology and needs of
plants. Students are placed into research groups.
This lesson begins with the teacher showing the class
an image of a vacant city lot (see figure 1).
Students are asked to quietly write out reflections on
the following questions:
- Describe the abiotic and biotic factors that you see
in this environment.
- What is growing here? Why?
- What types of plants might we want to grow here?
- How could we engineer this environment to grow
your chosen plant?
After five minutes of individual reflection, students
discuss their answers in a group. The teacher places
four posters around the room with the previous
questions written on top of each as a prompt. This
small group discussion allows students to build
on prior knowledge and brainstorm ideas. A group
representative writes the responses on the posters.
During group writing, the teacher reads the responses
to formatively assess student thinking. Then, she
leads class discussions on each of the topics. Students
are then presented with the project topic: They will
determine needs of plants that they choose to grow in
Community Garden – Lab Practice
To acclimate students to this type of research, they
complete a practice lab analysis. Analysis should be
completed in research teams, with student discussion
about each of the prompts. During this time, the
teacher formatively assesses student knowledge of
experimental design and responds appropriately to
clear up misconceptions. This activity allows students
to practice their research skills that will be needed for
future activities and provides an opportunity to practice
collaboration (see practice worksheet in figure 2).
Explore: Research Proposal
Groups identify a plant that they wish to grow in
this space. They justify the choice of a plant using
a combination of research and knowledge of their
local community. Each group develops a research
proposal to identify needs of the chosen plant in their
local environment. Students complete the planning
template (see figure 3) and turn it in to the teacher
for approval. After approval, they execute their
experiments by collecting data over the next month.
Students develop their scientific practice skills while
taking ownership of their work as they watch their
Research Proposal – Community Garden Initiative
(In order for your project to be funded your plan
must be complete!)
- My question: (Remember the format)
- Experimental Design:
a. Independent Variable (you can only have one)
b. Dependent variable (what you are measuring)
c. Constants (you should have many)
d. Procedure: (step-by-step, be specific)
***Describe the types of data you will collect***
e. Qualitative data:
f. Quantitative data:
Explain: Poster Presentation
Finally, students present their findings through a
poster presentation. The presentation highlights their
experimental question, methods, and findings from
their research. The conclusion section contains a
discussion about whether their proposed plant would
be a good fit for their neighborhood environment
and in what ways it will serve a community need.
The teacher assists students in putting their posters
together and facilitates student presentations to
the class. This activity helps students develop their
scientific writing and speaking skills.
Evaluate: Individual Persuasive Essay
After the groups have presented their findings,
students use their knowledge of all groups’ research
to write a two paragraph persuasive essay arguing
which plant should be planted in the vacant lot. The
argument should be made based on ways this plant
meets community needs, the requirements for growth,
and the amount of work/cost required to engineer the
plot of land. They make their claim using evidence
from the research findings. This essay provides a rich
opportunity for students to use their knowledge and
skills in a real-life situation, forming a good foundation
for developing scientific literacy.
This activity could be modified to include all content
area teachers. For example:
Social Studies – In depth research about identifying
needs of communities, study of their local economy
and community, or a study of food deserts, https://www.tolerance.org/lesson/food-deserts-causesconsequences-and-solutions
English Language Arts – Writing letters to the local
city council proposing their plan
Mathematics – Determining a budget and space
requirements for the implementation of scaling up
Cross-curricular learning benefits students by allowing
them to apply skills in a more complex manner.
This project helps students learn to think scientifically,
solidify their understanding about the needs of plants,
and apply their knowledge to serve a local need. All
aspects develop students toward the goal of becoming
a scientifically literate member of society. Although
this example demonstrates the use of socio-scientific
learning within an urban environment, the process could
be replicated and modified to fit any school community.
For example, students in a rural environment could
explore the impact of local farming practices on water
quality. Regular practice engaging in these types of
activities engages students to promote civic action. Civic
action by scientifically literate members of society is
critical to maintain good stewardship of our local, state,
and national communities.
Birmingham, D. & Barton, A. (2013). Putting on a
green carnival: Youth taking educated action
on socio-scientific issues. Journal of Research in
Science Teaching, 51(3), 286-314.
National Science Teaching Association (NSTA). (2016).
NSTA Position Statement: Teaching science in the
context of societal and personal issues. Retrieved
Zeidler, D. & Kahn, S. (2014). It’s debatable: Using
socio-scientific issues to develop scientific literacy
K-12. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.
Lise Falconer, M.A., NBCT is a middle school
science specialist with the Alabama Math, Science,
and Technology Initiative (AMSTI) at the University of
Alabama at Birmingham.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2020.
Enriching the curriculum and boosting middle school student engagement with the arts
We don’t need statistics to know that a curriculum lacking in arts is boring, but too often when budgets are cut, the fun parts of being in school for children are the first to be eliminated. The notion that schools with limited budgets implies having limited resources or opportunities for students never crosses my mind. Instead, I believe that schools in high need communities can access ample resources that offer a more enriching curriculum and integrate the arts to empower youth, change mindsets, develop creativity, and engage students.
I teach English as a Second Language (ESL) at a middle school, and part of my role involves supporting content teachers in their classrooms. Last year I worked with a colleague—a seventh grade language arts teacher—on a unit about poetry. He wanted his students to write poems in the Japanese poetic form of haiku. My English language learners struggled to understand even after I translated the lesson. They lacked background
knowledge on poetry and had difficulty breaking words down into syllables. Instead, they counted the silent endings like in the word “through.” Once they understood that part, they asked “What’s Japan?”
Opportunities for Collaboration
Even when our planning time is during the same period, too often it isn’t feasible to meet face-to-face with colleagues, so we found other ways to
collaborate. Initially we exchanged ideas by e-mail and as the project time approached, we met before school. We both wanted our students to understand and enjoy the unit.
My colleague shared the language arts standards he wanted to meet and I shared those for English of other languages. Once we had outlined all standards we wished to cover, I began searching among my connections in our community and using LinkedIn for an available guest to help make the lesson more relevant and exciting. My colleague helped by creating an exit activity on Google classroom and sharing activities we could both use to prepare for the unit project.
Through my search on ways to enhance the poetry unit, I secured Mr. Satogata, a Japanese American Haiku master, artist, and calligrapher to spend the day with us. It was a rare treat. He came early, set up the classroom, and even brought treats for students to sample from Japan. This activity was offered to all students including English speakers.
Making it Special
As part of the planning, we enlisted the help of our librarian and reached out to the high school art teacher, who sent her students during each period to take photos of the activity. Prior to the visit, students composed their haikus, wrote thank you notes, and designed a large banner to welcome our guest.
Since I teach larger groups and have a bigger classroom, I swapped rooms with my colleague for the day to make way for the seating and art project. We also secured parental permission for students to take photos. For those who did not, we took note to respect their wishes.
Students expressed that they had been looking
forward to the guest visit. At the end of each class,
students lined up to take a photo with him and many
asked for his autograph. At the end of the day, Mr.
Satogata asked me what I was going to do with
the welcome banner, so my students presented the
banner to him along with their thank you notes. While
he expressed it was a tremendous experience for him,
students shared the same sentiment. One ESL student
was so excited about the visit, saying “I never met a
person from Japan before!”
On our school website, we posted the photos and
sent the link to our guest. Although we didn’t have
it in our budget to pay for his time or the food he
brought, he eagerly volunteered to return again next
year because he enjoyed his time with us. That is a
critical component for all visits: making sure guests
feel valued and at ease.
Elevate the Standards
In seventh grade reading class, students learned
about the civil rights movement while the ESL
students struggled to follow along with the televised recording of “I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King,
Jr. I asked students to write about a dream they have
and what steps they would take to achieve their
goal. The activity combined several prompts that my
students were doing in different classes, including
writing smart goals, learning about the social justice
movement, and understanding Dr. King’s speech.
I extended this activity to all students including
non-ESL students to write a detailed essay for a project
called The Dream Goes On. As I started the activity, a
few students asked to speak to me privately, so private
that it needed to be outside of the class. We stepped in
the hallway and one by one they confided their belief
that people like them don’t dream—at all. I was baffled.
How could youth so young already have this limiting
mindset? “Besides, nobody will read mine anyway.
Well you have to, but that’s it!” one student told me.
I don’t set out to prove my students wrong, but I
wanted to show them a world that is caring and eager
to read their dreams. I searched online for contact
information and sent an email to the Freedom Center
in Cincinnati requesting to meet face-to-face to talk
about collaborating on this project. I didn’t hear back
so I searched for a specific contact at the center. It
worked. During the meeting, I shared about the work
that students have done and asked for permission to
have my students display an exhibit. This way a lot
of people could read the dreams my students wrote.
Permission was granted! It meant that I needed to
guide students in installing a museum-worthy display.
||Two students from my English Learners posing by their drawing of Martin Luther King, Jr. as part of a large display at the Cincinnati Freedom Center
13 Ways to Bring the Arts and Community Talent to Your Classroom
- Include the wishes of your students. Their
needs and input help by showing you what
matters to them.
- Focus on the standards instead of the activity.
It is easier to partner with colleagues when
their content standards are integrated in the
activity or project.
- Expand your network by volunteering for
- Take the time to find out what’s already
available. When I seek ways to enhance
lessons, I look for resources and opportunities
that exist within the community because
people want to invest in their youth.
- Be specific with your wishes. People want to
help but often don’t know how.
- Teach gratitude. I take the time to teach
students to thank their guests in person and
with a handwritten note.
- Find creative ways to recognize your
volunteers. My students have nominated
guests for awards. Guests feel honored to be
remembered and nominated, and the thought
matters more than the outcome.
- Join different organizations. Through my
membership in the Society of Children's Book
Writers and Illustrators, I have met many
authors who have already committed to
volunteering to talk at my school.
- Involve students in enlisting help. Their
families may have unique leads.
- Being excited about an idea is contagious. I
had family members sponsor my students
for camps and donate to my projects or in my
name to my school.
- Make it special for the guests. Students can
offer to give a school tour and introduce
guests to the administrators and other
teachers. This creates a special rapport
between youth and our guests.
- Obtain parent permission. This serves to
inform parents about upcoming activities
and to double check permissions for photo
- Give grants a chance! It is not accurate that
one must always dot all their i’s and cross
their t’s—compelling proposals get funded.
Through the arts, students delved into the project.
Ironically, although most students will not stay after
school to catch up on missed work, many volunteered
long hours on the weekend and after school to design
this project. We had a very short timeframe for the
exhibit creation, and through hard work these students
did it. They put a lot of effort in being artistic. My
advanced ESL students took the time to translate the
“I Have a Dream” speech into Spanish, which helped
those with less English fluency understand.
Using arts elevated the project, engaged students
into coming to school during the weekend, and offered
a forum to include parental help, making it possible
for these students to have their dreams on display to
be read by many. Next year, I have already lined up a
Japanese Tea Master to demonstrate a tea ceremony
and several authors, storytellers, and speakers have
committed to volunteer their time at our school. These
community guests are eager to share their skills and
time to bring learning to life. When it comes to the
ability to make learning fun and engaging, it doesn’t
matter that my district serves youth from low-income
homes or that we have 79% of students on free/reduced
meals, because the resources and opportunities
available for our students are abundant.
Leila Kubesch teaches at Norwood (Ohio) City
Schools and is the 2020 Ohio Teacher of the Year and a
finalist in the 2020 National Teacher of the Year award
program. She is the recipient of a $10,000 Teaching
Tolerance Grant for the project From Page to the Stage:
Helping Youth Find Their Voice Through the Visual and
Performing Arts, the 2019 Ohio Torch Teacher of the
year, and the 2019 OEA Award recipient.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2020.
Four pillars of flipped classrooms to help teachers with distance learning during COVID-19
Recent mass school closings due to the COVID-19 pandemic have educators everywhere seeking ways to provide meaningful distance learning. In response, some educators are developing instruction around a hybrid model of the flipped classroom. Similar to the traditional model, students in a hybrid model prepare outside class assignments using online tools and technologies in preparation for their upcoming face-to-face class meeting.
The flipped classroom is built around the four “pillars” of a flipped classroom: F- flexible environment, L- learning culture, I- intentional content, and P- professional educator (Flipped Learning Network, 2014). We posit that these same “pillars” can be applied to develop a fully online flipped classroom in which students meet with the teacher either synchronously or asynchronously, instead of in person. We offer this alternative model of the flipped classroom to meet the growing demand for distance learning, especially given the current large-scale school closings. Developing a completely online flipped classroom is not difficult, but it can take time, so we have included numerous hyperlinks to resources to get you started.
(F) Start with a Flexible Environment
Begin by selecting a platform that will be the foundation of your online classroom and hub for all your instructional activities and resources. Developing a flexible environment is the first pillar of a flexible classroom, so don’t be afraid to mix technologies, such as a class wiki to upload presentations, photos, videos of yourself teaching, activities, etc. Using what is already familiar to students will streamline the process and make navigating the online flipped classroom easier for them. If starting from scratch, take advantage of online platforms available through your school or school district. Many middle schools, for example, use Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams, Schoology, or Edmodo. Free platforms such as WebEx and Udemy also work well.
(L) Create the Learning Culture
Once you’ve chosen your platform, determine a layout for the online space. Like your face-to-face classroom, you will want to create a positive learning culture. One way is by making the space aesthetically pleasing, organized, and easy to navigate. Sometimes less is more, so try not to go overboard with images and designs. These can distract learners. Next, decide how you will organize learning. For example, developing instruction around learning modules is a popular and easy way to manage your online flipped classroom. Within each module, it’s important to make learning standards and objectives visible so students can see at a glance what they’re learning. You will also need a space (tabs or folders) to store instructional materials, documents, activities, and presentations. Next, integrate collaboration, such as discussion boards (i.e., Quicktopic and NowComment) or online chats (i.e., Hangouts Meet, WhatsApp, Zoom), which provide user-friendly tools to get you and your students communicating and sharing ideas.
(I) Integrate Intentional Learning
The internet is a warehouse for educational resources, so select learning activities and tools that support intentional learning and engagement (Albert, Pettit, & Terry, 2016). Intentional learning occurs when we purposefully select the technologies, tools, and resources that align with our instructional standards, engage students in learning, and support them in achieving their learning targets. Interactive read alouds, games (Kahoot!; Quizlet), and simulations (Phet simulations) actively engage students. Also consider your textbook’s online resources and personalized learning resources, such as Khan Academy and CK-12 for an interactive curriculum. These provide a wealth of learning support through PowerPoints, audios and videos, practice activities, and assessments.
(P) Harnessing Your Professional Educator Self
As in face-to-face classrooms, the teacher’s role in an online flipped classroom is to facilitate learning. In online spaces this means being available to your students virtually, providing instructional support, and feedback. For example, you might include live instructional videos (Screencastify) or moderate synchronous sessions. An added bonus to streaming live is the teacher’s presence, which also contributes to a positive learning climate (see ClearSlide, Animoto, and Vimeo).
We acknowledge the barriers to developing an online flipped classroom approach, foremost access to technology and the internet by all students (Dugan, 2016). Fortunately, many providers are offering free Internet during this crisis for either those with K-12 students (Charter Communications) or for low-income families (Comcast/Xfinity and TDS Telecom). Other numerous challenges include the mental and emotional challenges students face due to anxiety over changes in routines, learning expectations, and family dynamics.
Despite these challenges, we live in a technologically-advanced world, one that allows us to connect, work, and learn across physical barriers. Albers, Pace, and Brown (2013) state, “Networked technologies have had a highly visible impact” so much that “we are not just connected, but networked, socially, technologically, and intellectually” (p. 100). Fully online flipped classrooms can stabilize learning during this fragile time, provide effective instructional experiences, and proffer social interaction that current social distancing does not allow. Additionally, an online flipped classroom, when implemented as suggested, meets the criteria for middle grades “curriculum [that] is challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant” (NMSA, 2010, p. 17).
We recognize this is a challenging time for numerous reasons, particularly the anxiety of the unknown surrounding the virus, as well as acknowledging the vital role schools play in our daily lives such as feeding children who might not otherwise have a meal. Many uncertainties still exist, such as schooling during the summer and the legality of meeting special education accommodations in a virtual format. We can, however, offer the online flipped classroom as one solution. Given the current state of education under the COVID-19 crisis, implementing a completely online version of the flipped classroom makes sense so students do not fall behind in their learning.
This is an uncertain time in our world, our nation, and in education. Yet, we must continue moving forward, for to remain stagnant suggests powerlessness. So, go ahead, flip your middle grades classroom in favor of one designed fully online instead.
Albers, P., Pace, C. L., & Brown, Jr., D. W. (2013). Critical participation in literacy research through new and emerging technologies: A study of web seminars and global engagement. Journal of Literacy and Technology, 14(2), 78-114. http://www.literacyandtechnology.org/uploads/1/3/6/8/136889/jlt_14_2_albers_pace_brown.pdf
Albert, C. D., Pettit, S. K., & Terry, C. (2016). Flipping out: Understanding the effects of a general education flipped classroom on student success. University of California Press.
Dugan, M. J. (2016). Flipping the social studies classroom: More reasons you should consider flipping your classroom. AMLE Magazine. http://www.amle.org/BrowsebyTopic/WhatsNew/WNDet.aspx?ArtMID=888&ArticleID=626
Lage, M. J., Platt, G. J., & Treglia, M. (2000). Inverting the classroom: A gateway to creating an inclusive learning environment. Journal of Economic Education, 31(1), 30-43. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1183338?seq=1
National Middle School Association [NMSA]. (2010). This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents. Westerville, OH: Author.
Christi L. Pace, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Augusta University, Augusta, Georgia.
Stacie K. Pettit, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the College of Education at Augusta University, Augusta, Georgia.